Sunday, September 1, 2013

Benteng Heritage Museum: Pearl of Tangerang

It comes as a big surprise to learn that the Jakarta suburb of Tangerang, known today for its sprawling factories and warehouses, has a history that makes it unique in the country.

Tangerang is believed to be the site of one of the first settlements of ethnic-Chinese in the archipelago.

Although there are signs that Chinese merchants had contacts with Indonesia dating back as far as the 6th century, permanent settlements weren’t established until much later.

A man called Chen Chi Lung is thought to have led a small band of followers from the northern Javanese coast, close to what would later become Batavia (now Jakarta), up the Cisadane River in 1407.

These initial settlers are also thought to have been acolytes of the famous Muslim admiral from China, Cheng Ho, who led seven great Chinese fleets to Indonesia and beyond in early 15th century during the Ming Dynasty.

So, this means that ethnic-Chinese settlement in Indonesia, starting in Tangerang, occurred a full century before first contact with European explorers.

These settlers have since become known as “Cina Benteng”, meaning “the Chinese of the fort”, a name that derives from Tangerang and the bend in the Cisadane River becoming the site of a Dutch fort in the 17th century.

The fort was built in order to protect the Dutch settlement of Batavia from attack by the unruly Bantenese further west.

It’s fascinating to consider that today’s sprawling district of Tangerang started out as a small village of Chinese settlers on the banks of the Cisadane River in the early 15th century.

Before the property developers and factories arrived, it was a fertile rural area with rice fields and rubber plantations.

If you go to the old center of Tangerang today, and wander down the narrow, crowded Pasar Lama traditional market, you will still see Chinese-style buildings with characteristic low-curving sloped roofs and a lively 17th century Chinese temple where incense still smolders.

One man, a third-generation descendant, has made it his mission to try and save a little of what is left of the Chinese heritage in Tangerang.

Born and raised in old Tangerang, Udaya Halim, whose Chinese name is Lim Tjin Pheng, is using this heritage to help encourage the Tionghoa community — as the ethnic-Chinese community is now known — to appreciate and preserve their traditions and identity while educating Indonesians as a whole about the longevity and richness of Chinese heritage.

“Culture is borderless. It is like water and air. It is nourishing the soul. It takes and gives. It blends to build a character of a nation and to preserve Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” Udaya said, referring to the country’s slogan meaning “unity in diversity”.

As a small boy growing up in a modest house overlooking the Pasar Lama market, Udaya would sometimes gaze over the narrow lane toward a large, old Chinese-style house on the other side and wonder what secrets it contained.

Much later in life, after founding the King’s English Language School in Tangerang and expanding it to other cities, Udaya had a dream one night that he found himself inside the house. That was the moment he knew it was his destiny to buy the old house, renovate it, and turn it into a museum dedicated to the preservation of the Chinese heritage of Indonesia — before it was too late.

He had recently visited the old trading port of Malacca in Malaysia and it was like déjà vu for him: today’s old city of Malacca was just as Udaya wanted the future Pasar Lama to become – a living monument to Tionghoa heritage tourism.

Udaya had been impressed by the quality of the restored houses in Malacca and, as a result, felt more confident that a similar transformation could be made here in Tangerang.

Today, Udaya’s dream is finally starting to come true.

Purchased in September 2009, lovingly and carefully restored in its original style, and keeping as many of the original features and materials as possible, the Museum Benteng Heritage association was founded on the auspicious date of Nov. 11, 2011.

So far, at least one example of a 17th century Chinese-style house in Tangerang has been restored.

More, including photos.... 

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